It's a little early to be starting seeds indoors just yet, but it's certainly time to start planning what to grow! Basil, a member of the large and varied mint family, benefits from an early start indoors. Originally a tropical plant, it loves light and heat!
Soil: Basil likes a rich, well-drained soil - especially one well-fed with compost. The seeds won't sprout until the soil is nice and warm, so if you're starting it indoors - we recommend April or early May - consider a nice warm spot for it. And if you're direct sowing outdoors, wait until early June in the Vancouver area. Either way, plant it where it will get lots of light.
Planting: Sow the seeds about 1/2" (1 cm) deep. It may just be us, but we find basil is often slow to sprout, so be patient. While you wait, keep the soil moist, but make sure as well that the area is well-ventilated, since basil seedlings can dampen off (rot off right at ground level). When planting out in the garden - whether the seedlings or the seeds themselves - choose a nice sunny spot, and keep in mind that for larger varieties of basil, you need a good 1-1/2' (50 cm) between plants, somewhat less for smaller kinds.
As in the picture, basil seems to like growing with tomatoes - companion planting leading to a lovely culinary companionship as well! We often plant basil at the foot of our tomatoes - on the sunny side.
Care: Keep the soil moist as the basil grows; mulching around the plants is helpful in both retaining moisture and keeping the weeds down. Once the plants are big enough to sustain it, pinch the basil off frequently to encourage bushy growth - and do the same for the flower heads as well.
Problem-solving: The main issue with basil is its susceptibility to fungi, like mildew, damping off, or black spot. The best cure is prevention, by giving each plant lots of space and ensuring good air circulation. In a small, enclosed garden, planting it in a container or raised bed, to lift it into the breeze a bit, is also helpful.
Harvesting: Take leaves as you need them, as the plants grow - or if you're looking for a big batch of pesto, hold off taking too many, except for pinching off to encourage fuller growth. Basil tastes the best if harvested just before it flowers, so this is when you should harvest it for pesto.
You can dry basil, but it keeps its flavour better if frozen. We either freeze the pesto once it's made, or to preserve the basil alone, you can chop it finely (even pulp it in a blender), mix it with a bit of water and freeze it in an icecube tray. Then store the cubes in a freezer bag for later use.
Uses: Everyone knows about basil in spaghetti sauces and in southeast Asian cooking. We also like to add a few chopped leaves to a salad, or serve it with sliced tomatoes and sea salt, drizzled with olive oil. Beyond its strictly culinary uses, basil is also thought to have antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. And finally, it is beneficial in the garden itself, helping to ward off unwanted insects.